nonprofit marketing

Marketing Your Nonprofit Without Selling Out

I was recently talking with a longtime client of mine, and we were thinking back to when we first started working together. Back then, they had little to no marketing going on. The majority of their funding came from their annual gala and that was about as far as they were looking to gain support. They didn’t have a very large email list, weren’t sending any email campaigns or running  ads, and didn’t have much of an online or social media presence for people to engage with either.

As we began to dive into our work together, we discovered the reason for this. It was something I actually hear again and again working with nonprofit organizations and purpose driven businesses.

They didn’t like marketing. 

To them, it didn’t feel “right.” Marketing felt slimy and misaligned with the mission of their organization. 

Though an aversion to marketing is common for nonprofits and purpose driven businesses, more often than not, it’s not marketing that leaves that icky feeling. It’s the intention and the approach that make marketing strategy feel mission aligned…or not.

There is a way to market your organization that avoids those icky feelings and honors your purpose-driven nature while effectively sharing your story with the people you want to reach.

Marketing is Essential for Nonprofit Organizations

What savvy nonprofit leaders know is that in today’s crowded market and noisy online spaces, not only is formal marketing for nonprofits beneficial to advancing your organization’s mission, but it is actually essential to spreading your story and reaching targeted audiences. 

It’s a key ingredient for amplifying your impact.

Good nonprofit marketing helps people discover work. If you aren’t putting information and stories out, how will people know that you exist? How will they find you?

Marketing helps you find an audience that resonates with your work and is passionate about the same things you are. It informs your stakeholders about your organization and impact and then compels them to take action, whether that’s signing up for your newsletter or event, volunteering, making a donation, or spreading awareness for your cause. 

Hubspot, a leading digital marketing platform for all types of businesses, discusses nonprofit marketing on their website, reminding us that nonprofit marketing serves a number of important purposes like raising awareness, fundraising, driving membership and recurring donations, recruiting volunteers, and promoting your services.

If experts agree that marketing is so essential to the growth and success of nonprofits, then why does the term “marketing” get such a bad rap?

Marketing Can Be Slimy

It’s true. There are countless tactics that have been employed by corporations and salespeople for decades that can be considered “slimy,” unethical, or manipulative. Those types of strategies are often the ones we think of when we think of “marketing.”

For example, marketing tactics that intentionally incite anger, sadness, envy, scarcity, or rage to manipulate consumers to make a purchase that they may or may not even need can sometimes leave us feeling duped. 

Similarly, marketing that’s loaded with overly salesy jargon can make us cringe and recoil. You can tell when a marketing strategy is “slimy” because it leaves you with a big feeling of ick. 

No wonder nonprofits want to stay away! We are supposed to be the “good guys,” right?

It doesn’t have to be that way. Not all marketing is slimy and that viewing it that way is actually a misunderstanding of the tools and strategies used in effective marketing.

Nonprofit marketing can absolutely be full of authenticity, connection, joy, AND strategy, without sounding salesy.

In order to understand this, it’s important to think of marketing like a toolbox. If you have the right tools, you can pull them out at any time and use them to build, connect, or create something beautiful. Or you can use them to hurt, steal, or damage. The same tools can be used in either direction. It’s the motives and implementation strategies that count.

Mission driven, purposeful, conscious marketing challenges perceptions of sleazy sales tactics by utilizing genuine and compassionate tools like storytelling, connection, accountability, transparency, authenticity and social responsibility to activate their readers to support their mission and get involved in their impact.

Ethical & Values-Centered Marketing for Nonprofits

There are a number of ways that your team can effectively market your nonprofit programs while leaving behind the guilt of “wasting” donor dollars or “selling out” to questionable marketing tactics. Here are just a few.

Great Storytelling

Storytelling is the heart of effective nonprofit marketing. 

Ethical storytelling—the kind that centers the experiences of your clients or impact areas from a place of resilience and hope, can have a huge impact on your audience and stakeholders. When you craft narratives that paint a picture of your impact, you help build bridges of empathy and connection and show them the real-life outcomes of your work.

In order to stay away from slimy tactics here, always make sure to keep dignity at the center of your stories. You don’t want to run the risk of exploiting those you serve by painting them with broad brushes of vulnerability, suffering, or weakness. It’s important to be thoughtful and intentional about the stories you share to strike a balance between emotional appeal and manipulation. It is much more enticing, and ethical, to showcase empowerment, resilience, and hope.

Listen, Listen, Listen 

Great marketing does far more listening than talking. Rather than shouting into the void about all of the programs and services you offer, try asking questions and engaging with your donors, first.

By starting a conversation with your stakeholders, you will be able to better understand how your audience’s passions, interests, and struggles align with your mission and work. This means you’ll be more equipped to speak directly to their specific individual desires—a far more effective approach to marketing than shouting out anything and everything you do in hopes that something might resonate.

Understanding what your donors care about is a key component of building the foundation of your effective marketing plan. When we begin working with an organization, I like to start our work together by conducting audience interviews. This allows us both to understand what makes their particular audience tick and how to segment their audience in a meaningful way so that we can create content that resonates. 

You can do this too. Start simple by engaging your stakeholders online, inviting them to events, or going out into spaces where they already are. Ask them why they support you, how they found out about your work, or what other causes they support. This is where you’ll find gold to build your foundation of effective marketing.

Once you know what they care about, then you can speak specifically to the ways you create change in those areas.

Be Authentic 

As a whole, we’ve become pretty savvy to the age-old gimmicks that salespeople use to get people to buy things they don’t need. From false last minute flash sales to pitting people against each other in envy, gimmicks and cheap tricks have no place in nonprofit marketing. 

The people who you are searching for with your conscious marketing efforts are the ones that already resonate with your mission driven spirit. When you use authentic passion and language to describe what you do and get the word out about your impact, you will naturally draw in people who match your energy and care about your mission. No gimmicks needed.

This doesn’t mean this is all you need. Authentic, friendly, compassionate language can get you far, but without a clear strategy to get it out there, you may still get lost in the noise.

Build a Connection With Your Audience

If you’re using the strategies listed so far—being authentic with your messaging, listening to your donors, and telling great stories—you already have a strong and solid foundation for building a connection with your audience. 

Building a true connection with your stakeholders is the best way to ensure that they stick around for the long haul. Quick tricks may get you more followers on social media or a flash campaign might snag you some one-time donors, but building an intentional, ongoing relationship with your stakeholders is what lays the groundwork for recurring engagement and creates strong and consistent advocates for your organization. This is what makes your efforts sustainable.

Keep Going

Finally, It’s important to note that your nonprofit marketing strategy isn’t a one-and-done or something that you only pull out a few times a year for your annual gala or end of year giving campaign. 

If you’re trying to stay away from seeming “salesy,” then making sure you’re connecting with your audience at times other than when you are asking for a gift. 

Using the strategies above to maintain communication with your stakeholders year round is the best kind of strategy you can have because it communicates that you care about them as individuals and you care about bringing them along on the journey with you. 

Use your marketing strategy to educate, inform, entertain, and connect with your audience and you may just gather supporters for life.

Overall, we can see that marketing is not only a useful toolbox for nonprofit organizations, but really an essential part of connecting with your stakeholders, building your donor base, and increasing your impact.

When my client—the one who was wary of marketing and hesitant to “sell” their mission beyond their annual gala—decided to move forward with their first ever end of year campaign, they were amazed at the reaction they received from donors and stakeholders. The content they created demonstrated a deep understanding of their donor base and was tied together with a shared vision that both the organization and their stakeholders cared about. It didn’t feel slimy at all. 

While we can feel wary of marketing as purpose driven folks, it’s important to remember that you are doing meaningful work in the world, and people deserve to hear about it. As long as you are thinking about the person you are trying to reach—their passions, interests, desires, and pain points—and then working hard to make their lives easier in those areas, that is the very best marketing you can do.

How to Get Started Marketing for Your Nonprofit

Are you interested in learning more and taking the next step in marketing for your nonprofit? Would you like strategic help through that process?

Putting together a clear and comprehensive marketing plan can do wonders for paving the way toward effective marketing that isn’t salesy or slimy.

Wayward Kind can help you get started in the right direction. We believe that good businesses deserve to grow and strive to bring greater visibility to impact driven organizations that are serving as a reliable catalyst for change in our communities. We’d love to work with you!

Contact Us if you’re looking for some strategic marketing support!